Looking at social media recently, I saw someone asking for people to explain why they were Christians in five words or less. I was tempted to write three words: “It is true.” Then I remembered the words of the novelist and Catholic convert Walker Percy. When asked why he had converted to Catholicism he answered, “What else is there?”
That pithy response is actually a blueprint for evangelization or the “mission statement” which every parish or diocese seems to be required to have today. After the only essential mission statement, the “Great Commission” of Christ in Saint Mark’s Gospel (chapter sixteen), “What else is there?” stands up pretty well, encompassing everything about Catholicism. Percy sums up all the alternatives offered to man in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—from other religions, politics, art, music, and literature—and finds, if they are not rooted in Christ and not built upon the foundation of Catholic culture, they are empty.
The “what else is there” of Catholicism, however, implies a passionate belief, not only in the dogma but, as Dorothy L. Sayers would have it, in the “drama.”
At the heart of the “drama” is the liturgy, with the Mass at the center and the other sacraments, as it were, flowing from the Holy Sacrifice. And without the dogma there is no drama. Robust orthodoxy—or the “romance” of orthodoxy, as Chesterton described it—is the fuel that lights the fire.
There has been much discussion recently, or it has resurfaced with renewed vigor, about the effects of the Second Vatican Council, for good or ill, on the life of the Church. Without getting caught up in any particular debate one way or the other, perhaps it might be more useful to ask what effect secularization has had on the Church in the last fifty years, and how that has touched both dogma and drama.
Pope Benedict XVI, in one of his writings, refers to the words of the writer Eugene Ionesco, one of the founders of the theater of the absurd. Writing in 1975, Ionesco described the secularization he experienced in the Church as “truly pitiful,” and while the “world is losing its way, the Church is losing herself in the world.”
Forty-five years later, it could be argued that whenever the Church has allowed herself to be transformed by the world rather than transforming the world, Ionesco’s words still ring true.
Benedict XVI proposed, answering Ionesco, the “courage to embrace what is sacred” and not what he called “banal officiousness.” Much of the response to the novel coronavirus displayed by the Church reverses Benedict’s plea; there has been a great deal of “banal officiousness,” from decrees on Church cleaning, to threatening priests with suspension for preaching more than five minutes. Noticeably absent is a vigorous and life-giving embracing of the sacred.
In many ways, the pandemic has revealed what has been lurking below the surface for some time, both in the sacred and the secular world. In the secular world, the ever-encroaching state, with draconian control over every aspect of life, has been revealed in what many have naively believed were liberal democracies. Sadly, in the Church there has been a dramatic increase in the flight from the sacred and the supernatural to the mundane and superficial. In his interview (which sounds remarkably contemporary), Ionesco describes experiencing the world as “in flux.” “Nothing is left to us,” he laments; “nothing is solid… but what we need is a rock.”
When the world is in flux, and when nothing is solid, the “what else is there” of Catholicism is the rock the Church must present to those seeking both the dogma and the drama.
On another occasion, Walker Percy remarked that the Western world was “so corrupt and boring” that, eventually, young people would “get sick of it and look for something else.” The true peripheries in modern secular society are those who are seeking Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. It is unhelpful and counterproductive in the extreme to offer gruel when strong meat is called for; it is equally unhelpful to deny that there is a problem.
Facing the truth that an enervating and soul-destroying secularism has seeped into the heart of the Church is not destructive or negative; in fact, it is the only way forward. Willem Cardinal Eijk, the relatively youthful Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands—almost the epicenter of secular Europe—is quoted in Edward Pentin’s masterful new book, The Next Pope, describing the work of a bishop today as rather like a meteorologist. “A bishop has many duties,” he explains, “but pretending good weather is coming is not part of it.” Yet he goes on to say that in no way is it either a passive retreat into obscurity or an acknowledgment that the mission is defeated. Just the opposite. The Church must once again be proposed as the true alternative
Cardinal Eijk also said (time to again use the catchphrase “I Like Eijk”) that “a real storm front is approaching.” While initially referring to the implosion of the Church in Holland and the necessity of closing many churches, it can be interpreted as a word of prophecy about a post-Covid Church—certainly in much of the Western world.
We must, however, see more than the negative. This age, if faced with courage and discernment and apostolic zeal, provides the Church with a perfect moment to convince the world that the Church is the answer to the question “what else is there?” It will take both courageous and orthodox leadership, vision, and creativity. Unfortunately, these are things that are not on widespread display at large gatherings of the Successors of the Apostles.
Yet what better moment is there, with the world in flux and lacking an answer to the deepest questions of mortality raised by the pandemic, to proclaim the Gospel of life and resurrection as well as the hope that the Gospel brings? It is time to offer the succor and beauty of true worship, and for parishes to be schools of prayer and, rather than locking them, throw open their doors to reveal the sacred, with both the dogma and the drama as the cornerstones for a new society.
The courage to embrace the sacred involves presenting those who are “sick” of what the world has to offer not, as Benedict XVI wrote, confirmation of the world but the “radicalism of the Gospel.” The world may be “already a wreck,” as Whittaker Chambers once said to William F. Buckley, but at least we believers can be the people who, “at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”
[Image: The Baptism of Christ by Joachim Patinir]